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"These moors are changeable": Baker argues that the media blitz over Zoeller's remarks trivializes a grave

Using Film to Teach Racial Politics and Othello problem: "Witless cracks with a racist undertone, whether deliberate or inad-
vertent, are useful, because they reflect the somber reality: Try as we may to
Tony Perrello conceal it, the tendency toward racism insists on pulsing silent and apparently
Angelo State University eternal within us. Political correctness succeeds only in concealing the demon,
not killing it, and a demon concealed may be more deadly than a demon let free
Three weeks from now, in a city not far from here, Tiger Woods will defend where we can see and guard against him" (2). Baker's remarks provide a useful
his title at the Masters Golf Tournament. He won the title for the first time in segue to the issue of race in Othello; he ends his editorial piece with the terse
1997, rocking to its foundations the Augusta National, a club that did not sentence, "It's tragic" (2), and his commentary on the enduring and insidious
accept black people as members until 1971, "at the tournament whose founder, nature of racial hatred smacks of Iago. In a letter written a month later and
Clifford Roberts, once said, 'As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white, and published in The New YorkTimes under the title "0 Jealousy," Vaughn Carney
caddies will be black'" (Reilly, 1977; qtd. in Royster 1998). There's no deny- argues that other golfers are envious of Tiger's success, referring twice to the
ing that Tiger's skills have redefined the game of golf, but at the time he won golfer's battle with "the green-eyed monster" (I). In the process ofmythmak-
the Masters by a twelve shot margin, he also managed to shake up the golf ing, Tiger Woods, sports hero, becomes Classical Hero. The exclusive country
world by virtue of his race. Before Tiger's fame and work through inner-city club dissolves into the membranes of repression, and race, a paradigm to
golf programs, such as the Tiger Woods Foundation, golf maintained (and real- explore the construction of identity, becomes irrelevant. Tiger's story is one of
ly, still maintains) its mystique through an association with exclusivity and pre- race erasure, and makes studies like Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism
rogative, the "grand old game" which is the province of the country club and (1995), which proclaims that "our next step must be to eliminate race as the
the privileged classes. And, thanks to Fuzzy Zoeller and the media, 21 year-old basis for identity and public policy," seem like a blueprint for the new millenni-
Tiger Woods was to become the Spokesperson for race relations in the 1990's. um. But, if one heeds Baker, any attempts to conceal the demon only give it
The now familiar tale of the old order withering before the new runs thusly: power.
looking squarely into a CNN camera, a middle-aged Euro-American opines that Mythili Kaul writes "The sixteenth century.. .far from being innocent of
the young, Afro-Asian-American, whom he calls "that little boy," is "driving what we would call racist ideology,was in historical terms its point of origin in
and putting well; he's doing everything it takes to win." With winning comes Europe" (3-4). Kaul's pronouncement kicks-off an insightful collection entitled
the honor of choosing the menu for the following year's Champion's dinner. In Othello: New Essays by Black Writers. It is one of many recent texts to explore
his most ill-advised statement, Fuzzy indicated that Tiger's gustatory prefer- early modem constructions of racial otherness-Kim Hall's Things of Darkness
ences ran to fried chicken and collard greens. and Hendricks and Parker's Women,Race, and Writing in the Early Modern
Penance and punishment followed quickly: Zoeller withdrew from the Period are two of the better known and most frequently consulted books on this
Greater Greensboro Classic, issued official apologies, and was "smote in the issue to come out of the 90's. Early modem cultural studies is faced with a dif-
bankbook" by K-mart, who discontinued sales of golf paraphernalia that bore ficult task as it intersects with pop culture in the college classroom and the
his endorsement. Woods then materialized on the Oprah Winfrey Show,where world at large. The latest Hollywood productions of Othello prove reductionist
he rendered Zoeller's comments the more reductive by professing himself not in their depictions of race and blackness, producing stereotypical black heroes
an African American but a "Cablinasian," an acronym describing his Caucasian, which may as well be played by white actors in blackface. I want to expose the
black, American Indian, Thai, and Chinese ancestry. Time Magazine interpret- forced attempts at coherence in these films, the moments of crisis when depic-
ed Woods' acronym as a sign of a future where race would become ambiguous tions of race and otherness lapse into unreflexive categorization. One of the
and cease to matter. Tiger, as unflappable and measured in the media as he is tasks of early modem cultural studies is, as Royster observes, "to negotiate the
on the links, managed, with the help of an article by his father entitled "How to larger suspicion of multiculturalism's relevance to the past and with it, to his-
Raise a Tiger," to inscribe himself in a narrative of transcendence and uplift. toricize the gendered and racialized aspects of these suspicions" (4).
That behind him, Woods has gone about the business of winning, and there an Othello has been the source of a proliferation of black identities. Often,
end to this ugly chapter in the history of racism. black sexuality is linked to violence, and the blacker the skin tones of the actor,
But there are other angles to this great American narrative of perseverance the more prone he seems to rampant sexuality and the violence. In the nine-
and potholes on the road to success. Francesca Royster considers Tiger's rise to teenth century, for instance, the darkest Othello to grace the American stage
fame, his negotiation with the media, and his upbringing in a milieu dominated was the Italian actor Tomasso Salvini, whose make-up was described as a blend
by pop culture, and concludes that "America's stamina for reflexive racial of "copper and coffee" (Kaulll). Far from a noble character, Salvini's Othello
analysis is short" (2). In an Op-Ed piece for The New YorkTimes, Russell was, in the words of reviewers, a "barbarian," a "bestial savage," a "sweating
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says, "there is something so creepy and so very 0.1. in the initial love scene
beast," an "animal" who looked at Desdemona as no "Christian gentleman" between Othello and Desdemona" (Cartmell 76). Stressing violence as well as
ever looked at woman. His portrayal was devoured by an admiring public that sexuality,the movie was billed as "Shakespeare's erotic thriller," a "production
included Henry James (Kaulll). that consistently sizzles," and the promo, detailing a naked Fishburne nuzzling
It is by now well documented that Ira Aldridge, a contemporary of Salvini's, the trachea of an ecstatic Irene Jacob, could well be misfiled among the soft-
was the first great black actor to play Othello. Aldridge consciously fashioned core smut, but for the ghostly, monstrous head of usual good guy Kenneth
analogies between Othello's situation and his own. He claimed, for instance, to Branagh floating above the fused, oblivious couple. Indeed, one reviewer from
be the grandson of a Senegalese chieftain, though records show that he was the Evening Standard likened Parker's Othello to a "kitschy soft-porn
born the son of a New York City minister. He also married not one but two Emmanuelle movie," lucky to get away with an R rating (Cartmell 77).
Desdemonas. His first wife, an Englishwoman, looked after his illegitimate Fishburne's portrayal of the Venetian general is sexual. A 1996 issue of Jet
children; his second wife was a Swedish woman who had borne those illegiti- describes Shakespeare's playas one concerned chiefly with issues of sexuality.
mate children. He was said to have emphasized his blackness in several ways The cover story begins, "A bald, bearded, sexy Laurence Fishburne stars in the
during performances, and Russian and British audiences (he would never bring film of Shakespeare's tragedy of love, passion, jealousy, and betrayal-
his Othello to America) felt as if they were witnessing the play for the first Othello" (32). Parker's film celebrates its hero's athleticism through a number
time. To a large extent, Aldridge's success depended upon the illusion that his of shirtless appearances. Viewers are also made privy to carnal images of
savage passion was real. One Russian newspaper published a cartoon showing Desdemona and Cassio conjured by his overwrought mind. But he's also a reti-
Aldridge holding lago over his head, poised to throw him. An illustration of cent and violent Othello, brooding and grunting at other characters throughout
Aldridge in an 1858 edition of the Illustrated London News depicts him as the film, and holding a loaded pistol to lago's head as he quietly demands to
scantily clad, the entirety of legs, arms, and chest visible, brandishing an know his thoughts.
expressly phallic curved scimitar (reproduced in Owens 123). The "African Violence, for this Othello, is tied to images of the black male body. Take
Roscius," as he became known, engendered the idea that a natural "black" act- the sequence in which Brabantio and his men seek to arrest Othello and
ing style was both libidinal and dangerous. imprison him, for instance. Parties on both sides draw. Othello, in this scene,
Even in the wake of Aldridge's career and the great work of Paul Robeson usually displays Christ-like self control at the same time that he indicates his
that followed, the racial politics of casting seemed to revert to the age-old idea, contempt for the citizen: "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust
which perhaps had its genesis with Coleridge, that Othello was not black at all. them" (1.2.60). The text would seem to indicate that Othello diffuses the brawl
In 1981, in fact, Jonathan Miller cast Anthony Hopkins as a tawny Othello for with little more than a gesture ("Were it my cue to fight, I would have known it
the BBC, claiming that a black Othello invokes "the myth of performance over / Without a prompter"), as Hopkins and Olivier do. Fishburne, however,holds
text" and citing "the hero's blackness as a distraction" (Kaul 19). However,in a curved sword-longer and more menacing than those of the white
film and stage alike, Othello has become the domain of the black actor. As Venetians-to the throat of Brabantio, his rival for Desdemona's love and obe-
positive a step as this might seem for black actors and for Shakespeare, Celia dience. "Keeping up" a weapon, for this street-brawling Othello, means the
Daileader examines a phenomenon she labels "Othellophilia"-the black opposite of what it meant in the early modern period. Instead of ordering the
actor's dream, curse, and destiny is to play the role of Othello. But the mob to put away its swords, Fishburne challenges his rivals to "Put 'em up!"
inevitability of the role makes every bit part leading up to it a grooming for the Both Parker's Othello and Tim Blake Nelson's 0 (2001) include a sex scene
role, so that Othello becomes every role for the black actor. Accomplished between Othello and Desdemona. Of course, there is no sex scene in the text
RSC actor Hugh Quarshie resists the role, which, he says, reinforces racial itself. The couple may not have ever had a chance to consummate the marriage
stereotypes (185). Quarshie's fears have been realized in the portrayal of except in the final scene, where the marriage bed becomes a tomb. Other char-
Othello by Laurence Fishburne under the direction of Oliver Parker (1995). acters in the play (and outside of it, surely) are obsessed with the goings-on in
Black film Othellos before 1995 are rare. Although Jan Kani and Yaphet the bedchamber, and when we are afforded a glimpse of that space in Act Five,
Koto had been caught on celluloid, Fishburne was the first black actor to play we see only an object (the corpse strewn bed) that "poisons sight; / Let it be
the role in a major Hollywood production. Two years earlier, Fishburne had hid" (5.2.375-76). However, when I showed the Jonathan Miller film, starring
played the abusive husband Ike Turner in Whats Love Got ToDo WithIt? And Anthony Hopkins, to an undergraduate class of non-majors, one student pub-
of course-and Barbara Hodgdon has written wittily on this issue-tensions licly protested, "They cut out the sex scene?!" As with the bed in 3.4 of
about miscegenation and race were boiling over at the time of the film's release Hamlet, popular film is creating the text here by forcing sex upon us.
Whereas the sex scene in Parker's film is "wild"-Othello and Desdemona
thanks to the protracted coverage of the OJ. Simpson trial and the accompany-
ing media blitz. Fishburne's Othello seems to have been immediately tainted undress with eyes locked while circling the bed like hunter and prey, passion
by the easy parallels with the football hero; as one reviewer for the L. A. Weekly
and expectation accentuated by African drumbeats-the sex scene in 0 begins actor, and Fishburne and Phifer have been pioneers. But these films may be
as a tender moment between two teenagers. Desi offers her virginal body to the most racist productions of all, far more damaging than Olivier's moor in
Odin, and the two engage in a fully realized display of lovemaking. However, blackface.
when Odin looks into a mirror he sees Cassio staring back at him, having sex
in his place. Odin's jealousy is inflamed, and the lovemaking turns to a brutal
rape, Desi howling in pain with each thrust of Odin's hips. This scene is juxta-
posed with an earlier sequence in which Desi and Odin lie together in a naked
but non-sexual embrace, bantering about racial invectives, black/white rela-
tions, Odin's cockiness and sexual potency. Cockiness replaces hubris in the
new millenium. Gone, G. Wilson Knight, is the Othello music you, G. B.
Shaw, and so many others have praised. Brad Kaaya's screenplay lacks any hint
of verbal music. Gangsta' rap, rather, punctuates the violent montage.
In 0, the baroque setting has also been jettisoned, replaced by an all-white
private high school and a basketball court. Odin has infuriated the coach's son,
Hugo (that is, Iago), by electing a sophomore, Michael, to be his co-MVP.
Hugo also envies Odin's jumping ability. But it is never clear whether Hugo is
unjustly passed over or suffering delusions about his role on the team. The
turning point in the film is Odin's victory at the slam dunk contest and his pub-
lic display before the crowd. Driven to distraction by Hugo and cocaine, Odin
takes the court for his turn at a slam dunk contest. His dunk is reminiscent of
Darrell Dawkins: he shatters the backboard, abuses a ball boy, tears down the
rim, and hoists the "0" above his head, fixing the crowd with a menacing gaze
and displaying a sculpted physique.
In an article that shocks through its head-on clash with the racist elements
of Shakespeare's play, freelance director Shelia Rose Bland asserts that she
would direct Othello as a comic minstrel show in which all parts were played
by white males, Othello a white male in blackface. "In fact, I would treat the
entire production as a white male fraternity initiation skit-including the audi-
ence as initiates... I would create an evening where hatred, vengeance, and mur-
der were fun and entertaining" (29-30). In Hollywood, racism is less overt and
more insidious. The audience viewing Parker's Othello or Nelson's 0 is per-
haps less aware but just as complicit as those white frat boys hazing a black
effigy. Viewers are encouraged to enjoy these physical Othellos, as the camera
fetishsizes the black male body, ultimately reinforcing stereotypes. As in the
case of 0.1. Simpson, these films exploit race. The Othellos they offer are cul-
tural icons that the American public greedily consumes-silent, black, muscular
male bodies that communicate nothing beyond the body. Neither Fishburne nor
Mekhi Phifer makes much of vocal range or inflection. In 0, Odin's suicide
invokes another image which had become common fare for the American view-
er in the 80's and 90's-the young, inner-city black male with a gun.
Contemporary audiences, perhaps, have lost touch with Shakespeare's black
African, infusing him with the stereotypes of the age and refiguring him as a
nihilistic youth from east L. A. For the next generation of high school students,
Odin James will be Othello.
Finally, Hollywood has made the role of Othello the domain of the black
35 36
Works Cited

Baker, Russell. "Food, Race, and Tragedy."New YorkTimes 3 May, 1997, late
ed.: sec. 1: 23+. '
Bland, Shelia Rose. "How I would'Direct Othello." Othello: New Essays By
Black Writers. Ed. Mythili Kaul. Washington, D.C.: Howard U P, 1997.
Carney, VaughnA. "Oh, Jealousy." New YorkTimes 8 June, 1997, late ed.:
sec. 8: 9.
Cartmell, Deborah. Interpreting Shakespeare On Screen. New York: St.
Martin's Press, 2000.
Daileader, Celia R. "Casting Black Actors: Beyond Othellophilia."
Shakespeare and Race. Eds. Catherine M.S. Alexander and Stanley Wells.
Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2000. 177-202.
D'Souza, Dinesh. The End of Racism: Principles for a Multicultural Society.
New York: Free Press, 1995.
Hall, Kim F. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early
Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1995.
Hendricks, Margo, and Patricia Parker, Eds. Women.Race. and Writing in the
Early Modern Period. London: Routledge, 1994.
Hodgdon, Barbara. "Race-ing Othello. Re-engendering White-out."
Shakespeare: The Movie. Eds. Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt.
London: Routledge, 1997. 23-44. ,
Kaul, Mythili. "Background: Black or Tawny? Stage Representations of Othello
from 1604 to the Present." Othello: New Essays By Black Writers. Ed.
Mythili Kaul. Washington D.C.: Howard U P, 1997. 1-22.
"Laurence Fishburne Stars in the Movie of Shakespeare's Othello." Jet 15 Jan.
1996: 32-35.
Owens. WR., and Lizbeth Goodman. Shakespeare. Aphra Behn. and the
Canon. London: Routledge, 1996.
Royster, Francesca T. "The 'End of Race' and the Future of Early Modem
Cultural Studies." Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 59-70.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. the Moor of Venice. The Complete Worksof
Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. Fourth ed. New York:Longman,
1997. 1122-1166.


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